The High Cost of Anger, Part III
This is the third and final installment in a series addressing the high cost of anger. Previous columns dealt with the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate anger expression and the devastating impact of the latter on our health and well-being; ongoing sobriety maintenance; and pointers for attempting to prevent unhealthy outbursts. This final installment focuses on damage control, with particular reference to nipping our anger in the bud and repairing the damage when our anger gets out of hand.
Nipping it in the Bud
The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is particularly applicable to anger management. When our efforts at prevention fail, however, we need to focus on nipping our anger in the bud before we lapse into an uncontrollable outburst, or worse.
Cultivating the quality of mindfulness immediately comes to mind. We can learn to notice and monitor our own signs of agitation, and to self-intervene to avoid “blowing up.” We need to tune in to our own signs of escalating irritability, and use these signs as cues to pause and calm down. Physical signs of anger build-up include tightness in the chest, neck or shoulders and an escalating heart rate. Raising our voice signals an important verbal cue. Paying attention to our self-talk can help us identify important mental-emotional cues. Some of my own cues include tuning out what the other person is saying and lapsing into a self-righteous attitude that escalates the conflict.
Once we own our escalating irritability we need to consciously pause and calm ourselves down. It may help to announce our intention to the other person, for example, “Wow. This is getting kind of heated and I’m getting agitated! I need to pause, take several deep breaths, and calm myself down.”
We must learn to identify when our anger is approaching the dangerous “point of no return.” At that point we need to remove ourselves from the situation by either calling a time out or honoring the other person’s time out request. An agreed-upon time out can run anywhere from twenty minutes to half a day or even longer, depending on the intensity of the collective anger that has been building up. It is extremely important that we physically remove ourselves from the situation and make good use of our time outs.
Repairing the Damage
The real goal in anger management is to avoid an abusive outburst and the resultant need to repair the damage. As a practicality, however, we need to be prepared to contain and rectify the damage in those hopefully rare situations when our anger gets out of control. The following suggestions address this important area.
It is imperative that we catch ourselves when we are behaving abusively and immediately remove ourselves from the situation. This is particularly important in preventing domestic violence. Very important; don’t rationalize! Always honor the other person’s time out request. I have an affirmation card that reads “Always honor a request for a time out. I don’t need to like it; I just need to do it!”
Incidentally, if either you or your partner is prone to angry outbursts or spells of depression, I strongly urge you to remove all firearms from your household. Over thirty thousand Americans die from gun-related violence each year (Alpers, Rossetti, Salinas, & Wilson, 2014), and far too many of these deaths (usually perpetrated by males) are from spousal arguments that escalate out of control. Drugs and alcohol are involved in many if not most of these tragedies. Another scary statistic: suicide, rather than homicide, constitutes the majority of gun-related deaths.
Make Good Use of Your Time Outs
I have an affirmation card that reads, “Always honor a request for a time out and immediately retreat to prayer.” When our anger has approached the point of no return, our heads are filled with thoughts of blame and recrimination. My experience has been that when I am able to humble myself and beseech my higher power to guide me to let go of my self-righteousness, and begin to appreciate the situation from the other person’s perspective, my prayer is always answered.
When we have blown it we need to make amends to the party we have violated. Especially in spousal disputes, timing is of utmost importance.
We need to wait until things have calmed down—which in a really bad blow-up may take several days—and then give our partner a sincere apology from the heart. To lay the groundwork I recommend admitting to your partner that you were really out of line, that you know you have hurt him or her, and that you’d like to fully listen to him or her without interruption before offering a response. Above all else, don’t rush in to defend yourself. You need to listen without interruption, and fully experience the hurt you have inflicted from his or her point of view. When it is your turn to respond, focus on validating your partner’s feelings and emphasize that you are deeply saddened by the abuse you have inflicted. Hold any explanations of your behavior until after you have made a full apology. If you do choose to offer an explanation, emphasize that this is an explanation, not an excuse. If your partner is receptive, ask for suggestions that may help avoid future escalation.
Know When to Seek Help
If you are prone to abusive outbursts, I highly recommend taking an ongoing inventory with an eye toward identifying red flags that indicate the need to get professional help. Such signs include your letting the fighting escalate to physical violence, a pattern of refusing to honor your partner’s time out request, followed by an onslaught of verbal abuse, and relapsing to alcohol and/or drug use.
As illustrated in this series, excessive and uncontrolled anger takes a serious toll on our lives and our relationships. The best way to prevent a serious outburst is to consciously open up our hearts and let our love flow through. When we reach the point where this is impossible, we need to call a time out and remove ourselves from the situation. With many of us, learning to effectively manage our anger should constitute an important component of our lifelong process of recovery.
As always, feel free to share this article with clients who may benefit from the message. Until next time—to your health!
Alpers, P., Rossetti, A., Salinas, D., & Wilson, M. (2014). United States – Gun facts, figures, and the law. Retrieved from http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-states